AAG Recognizes Prof. Kwan for Creativity in Geography

Posted on 05/21/2018 | Matt Cohn
Mei-Po Kwan, a professor of geography and geographic information science, has received the American Association of Geographers (AAG)’s Stanley Brunn Award for Creativity in Geography. This award honors individuals who establish new methods and vocabulary for geographic research, and cultivate a deeper understanding of human/environment relations at local or global scales.

Kwan bridges the gap between top-down geographic research and the unique behaviors and needs of individuals, especially those in underserved and disadvantaged urban communities. Among her many innovations, she has pioneered the use of geo-narratives – a qualitative method that equips research volunteers with journals and small GPS devices. Their handwritten notes are then combined with their time-based geographic coordinates, to reveal how and why they navigate their everyday environment.

Kwan’s research has found that peoples’ daily routes reflect their economic and social constraints, and often point to larger-scale issues and inequalities in urban development. For instance, a research volunteer may not have the time to access fresh produce outlets or a doctor’s office, even when these places are located near their home or workplace. Such goods and services may exist in their neighborhood, but can still be difficult to access.

“Geographic research and visualization has always been based on data, but sometimes what you cannot see or visualize is actually more important to the research question that you are asking. GPS only tracks where people go, but where they don’t go can be even more important,” says Kwan.

In 2012, Kwan presented the Uncertain Geographic Context Problem (UCGoP), which states that we should not assume a person’s physical or emotional health to be due exclusively to where they live, since each member of a given community takes a different route through the city that exposes him or her to a unique combination of social and environmental stressors. The UCGoP shows that “neighborhoods” are conjured by our collective imagination, and we must dig deeper to understand the health and wellbeing of individuals within them.

For a current research project based in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, Kwan and graduate students, including Jue Wang and Lirong Kou, provided resident volunteers with GPS tracking devices, sound level monitors, pollutant sensors, and daily activity diaries to assess how differences in their surroundings might lead to different health outcomes.

“We are combining sensing methodology – our volunteers’ sense of the air, sense of the noise, the pollution, and also their movements; with their handwritten activity diaries, which they use to tell us what they are doing over the course of each day.”

“It’s easy to just look at their movements using GPS devices, but we also want to know how they feel about the environment, and how their feelings affect their behavior and ultimately their health. As a geographer, I am trying to link all of these factors,” says Kwan.

Kwan and her students are gathering and analyzing this data to illustrate how people’s opportunities and hardships are often shaped by the built environment. This research is changing how we think about urban planning and public health, and is also enabling the next generation of geographic researchers to be creative, and critical of existing methods.

“I would say that the data collection process is life-changing for my volunteers, and also for my graduate students. It has definitely changed their perspective. They can see problems other people face, and also that this work can eventually improve the quality of the community, and the wellbeing of its citizens.”

“We went back and presented our project results and ideas at the community organization that supports the project. In fact, we always try to link our research results to concrete ideas, like how to change housing policy in that community. One major finding is that indoor pollution is more serious than outdoor pollution, which means that housing policy for indoor remediation is important,” said Kwan.

Graduate student Lirong Kou acknowledges the profound changes she has experienced as a researcher, and as a confidant for resident volunteers.

“It is essential for field geographers to care more about our research subjects, to be more aware of their everyday lives, and to understand more about the contextualized information within the data. Now, when I create maps, I start to think more critically, and realize that it is not just about the dots and locations on the map, but they represent a collection of individuals, and their own subjectivity, feelings, and emotions.”

Mei-Po Kwan’s motivation as a geographer has always been to understand the inner workings of communities, and to build trust with individuals within them to encourage new approaches to public health and urban planning.

“If they feel you are only there to gather data, give them a few dollars to take their information and try to publish a paper, then I don’t think they will be eager. They can refuse to share their thoughts and issues, or they will make up fake information. So in every project I do, I try to start by building up trust, and people can see that my major purpose is not to expose or criticize them, but that I’m trying to help them.”

Kwan is just the sixth recipient of the AAG Stanley Brunn Award for Creativity in Geography, which is presented annually at the AAG annual meeting. Previous awardees include renowned urbanist David Harvey; and Michael Goodchild, a lifelong geography educator and researcher who coined the term “geographic information science.”